“Our Debt of Service”
(This subject is by request.)
John 13:14, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
This morning, what is real service? What does it look like? Our present day, self-centered culture has lost touch with what true service entails. With governments throwing money at poverty and the rat race becoming more and more fast paced, we rarely give time or thought to what could be done for those in need. Whether on a personal or community level, the sense of aid and altruism looks more like the exception than the rule. To combat this – or any other problem in life – we only need consult the source material for standards: The Holy Bible. There we find a plethora of commands that instruct us to put self on the back burner so that others would be blessed. Years ago, a former football player – Gale Sayers – penned a book whose title gets to the heart of this subject called “I Am Third.” In the book the title is expounded to reflect God first, others second, and I am third.
Our study verse is one of the more well quoted verses during a communion and feet washing service. We hear about our Lord’s majestic stoop to servitude by washing His creation’s feet, and then the simple command He gives for us to do likewise. Yet, though the command is simple, consider how profound it truly is. Simple words with simple meanings can really bring to bear the great import of statements like this. While growing up, my natural father used the word “ought” a lot. One of the most common examples was when he would have to run errands in town. He would line out my work to do around the house and say, “When I get back from town, you ought to be done with all of this.” Heaven help you if he came home from town to find the tasks unfinished with no certifiable reason. Yet, even in that common usage growing up, we still do not really find the teeth of the word’s meaning.
The word “ought” is literally rendered to mean that we owe a debt. Instead of a suggestion, this command shows our responsibility. We owe debts to creditors who have power over us due to what is owed. Currently, I live in a house that is partly owned by a bank until I get the note paid off. My house payment is not a voluntary monthly item. If I want my family to continue to enjoy living there, I must pay it, else the bank has the power to forcefully remove my family and me from the house. That is the nature and power of a debt. Though this instance happens during a literal feet washing service (which is simply commanded to the church to keep literally as His example and service), the verse is a microcosm of a much broader application. What is to be performed literally in that service should be mirrored and reflected in all portions of service.
Let us begin by considering the Speaker, and then we shall turn our attention to His audience. In doing so, I believe the profound nature of this word (ought) will shine forth in exceeding splendor. The Speaker is the Lord from heaven. He is the Incarnate and Eternal Son of God. He is God. No less in power than the Father or Holy Ghost, He has all power, honour, knowledge, and glory. Would it be proper to say that this Great One was in debt? Years ago, I would have answered the question incorrectly as I have heard it said all my life, “God does not owe us anything. He is not obligated to us at all.” While the statement was made honestly, the sense of it is wrong. It would be more proper to say, “God did not owe us anything, and He was not obligated to us at all.” What is the difference between the two? The difference of sense comes from a difference of tense.
In God’s character and nature, He owed us nothing. As the eternal, self sufficient, and great I AM, He was beholden to nobody and nothing. Should He have chosen never to create a universe, nothing in His essence or being would have changed. Yet, He chose to create this great physical realm. He chose to create man in His image. Further, He covenanted with Himself (before creation itself) to redeem His people from the ruin of sin-cursed creation that He knew we would enter into. To affect this covenant, His Son willingly and joyfully entered into the contract to redeem us from ruin by becoming one of us (a man) and standing where we should have stood. He died the traitor’s death so that traitors would live in glory with all majesty.
In addition to that, He agreed to fulfill all that was foretold and laid upon Him. Not only did He die for us on Calvary and rise again from the dead, He also lived for us to show us the good way where rest is found for the soul. In that short 33.5 year span, He fulfilled every prophecy made of Him, fulfilled all righteousness through His conduct, and gave us the perfect, supreme example of what a true servant does in his service. The high water mark of this living servitude came that night when He knelt down before them. Not only had they never seen a master do this, no master compared to this Master! Doubtless, Peter was honest in his initial prevention of Christ just as John the Baptist was with his until Christ instructed both of them more perfectly. John was told that his participation with Christ fulfilled all righteousness. Peter was told that unless washed he had no part with Christ. Both of them then willingly submitted to the service.
Why would THE LORD and THE MASTER kneel down to creation? Isaiah 42 prophesizes this when the LORD declares that the GodMan Jesus (His Elect) would be His servant. No doubt this prophecy pertains to Christ as the New Testament tells us so, but the LORD calls His Son “My servant.” To fulfill all that this pertained to, Christ had to come in the form of a servant though He be Lord of all. Consider Him. Consider His humility and meekness. Consider the power of this one to submit to such a contradiction of sinners against Himself. (Hebrews 12:3) He not only fulfilled the legal requirements of the law for our justification, He fulfilled all the prophecy for our chief example for life. Why? Because He owed a debt. What debt? To do all that the Godhead promised to do. He owed us, not because we were His creditors, but because we were the blessed recipients of His contract. God obligated Himself to us! To fail to do pay any portion of His debt of service would have invalidated His covenant and His nature, which is why the Lord included in Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 42:5) that He will not fail nor be discouraged. Blessed thought!
Looking from the Speaker to His audience, let us point the glass at ourselves no matter how bitter the image. How well are we paying our debt? We have a debt, as this verse tells us. We owe Him our service, our best affection, and our first priority in life. To fulfill that, it is imperative that we view one another (His people) as we view Him. The King will one day tell His sheep “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40b) Whether in literal stooping at our brother’s feet or in various aspects of servitude, we are “paying” on the debt we owe Him. He receives our service to one another just as if it were a payment made directly to Him. How often do we think of that when dealing with our brethren? Sobering indeed.
Whether speaking of officers in the church (elders and deacons), fellow disciples of Christ, etc. we owe Him service and ought to be willing and obedient to pay. Elders serve the church ministering to her in the feeding of knowledge and instruction, being apt to teach. (Jeremiah 3:15, I Timothy 3:2) Deacons serve the church by holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience so that they can purchase to themselves a good degree with boldness in the faith of Christ Jesus. (I Timothy 3:9, 13) As “leaders,” the leading comes through the example of service. Pastors serve through example, and deacons do as well. The example of knowing and/or instructing in the principles of the faith and showing forth with all fidelity the good life to lead. In like manner, devoted disciples show forth the same fidelity and care one for another, with each esteeming others better than themselves.
Consider us. We do not have the eternal nature and self sufficiency of Him. We have not created. We have not redeemed. We are not perfect. Yet the One who is all these things and more did these things for us. How reasonable is it that we do these things for Him through and to one another? Years ago, I observed perhaps two of the most touching things during a communion service that have stayed with me ever since. I observed an old and respected deacon as he washed his brother’s feet. While washing, his tears fell into the bowl, and as he rose from his knees, he cast his eyes to heaven saying, “Lord, there is some of what I owe you.” This man held the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience, knowing what the word “ought” means.
Years later, my wife and budding family were visiting with a church during their communion. The children we had were very small and getting loud. Sitting up front assisting the service, my wife was forced to wrestle them alone until she had to go out due to their noise. She stayed out of the sanctuary until we starting singing the hymn before going out. As she re-entered, the pastor leaned in and said, “We need to keep singing for a while.” Nodding to the deacons who distributed the table, they took the bread and wine back to my wife as the sisters began a procession line to her. After partaking of the table elements, some of the sisters took the children from my wife, while another who was already girded knelt down before her to allow her to partake of the service. Friends, they may have been singing, but I was too touched to do anything but weep. After service, I thanked everyone that had assisted in allowing my wife to partake, and they all said the same thing, “It was the least we could do. He has done so much for us.”
Whatever your calling and station in life, remember how much we owe Him. Remember how devoted He is to us. So should we be devoted to one another. Many times you will hear it said at communion, “You can’t be at your brother’s throat, when you kneel at his feet.” When our hearts stay prostrate before our Lord and our brother’s feet, we exemplify the attitude and position of Christ. When our affection is tuned to things above, we really are third. Remember my house analogy from above. I live in a house the bank owns. One day I will live in a house that God dwells in that His Son bought for me. While here, I live in His earth, and dwell in His church. They belong to Him, but I get to use and enjoy them. Just as I must pay the bank for the living in my house, I owe the Lord to live here and the privilege of being part of His kingdom and church. May we daily and constantly serve, knowing that our Master is owed these things, and use His willing and cheerful example to guide us as He paid all that was required of Him.